Reciprocity encourages cooperation
and reduces the potential for violence

Reciprocity encourages cooperation and reduces the potential for violence even when people don’t like each other, don’t agree with each other, don’t understand each other, and don’t want to be friends.

Renee and Roger have two fine adopted sons of different racial and ethnic origins. The boys are both intelligent, temperamentally intense and have a strong sense of personal integrity. They are ideologically quite different however. One goes to church with his parents and is a devout believer; the other calls religion the greatest hypocrisy of all time. One likes team sports where there is a good deal of physical contact; the other prefers a game of chess. They belong to different groups at school, dress differently, have different tastes in music, movies, and television shows, AND different ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong. Sometimes they actually hate each other and what the other stands for.

Roger and Renee are afraid to leave the boys home alone because they get into physical fights. There’s no telling what might happen if there’s no one there to police them… to stop their fights.

The boys were asked, what would happen if their parents weren’t there to stop their fights. Would they use a gun or a knife if one were handy?

They described another aspect of their relationship. Although they claimed to dislike each other, and disagreed about virtually everything, they didn’t always fight. Most often they ignored each other, with a live and let live attitude.

Sometimes they were even kind to each other. Did each other little favors and noticed the kindnesses. They did favors in return, a kindness for a kindness. They were careful not to be too nice; they wouldn’t want to give the impression they liked one another, or agreed with each other. They’re not interested in promoting a friendship.

When one got out of line, the other wasn’t about to take it like an easy mark or a push over. They gave back in equal measure what had been dished out. They didn’t pay back however, with a retaliation that was larger than the offense received, just enough to let the other know they noticed the insult or the injury and wouldn’t accept that kind of treatment. In other words, they didn’t retaliate a poke in the ribs with a bloody nose. An angry, "get your hands off me" and a jab in return was all that was called for.

Somehow they knew enough to check out whether the insulting name or the foot in the isle to trip over was intended as an affront before they retaliated. They also knew how to avert a retaliation with an apology and… how to accept an apology.

They seemed to be handling the tough stuff nicely. What they fought about was things like whose turn it was to take the garbage out, or have control over what’s playing on the family’s big screen television.

They felt quite confident they could stop their fights before they got too violent. When asked why they were so confident, their answer was surprising. Self-preservation is their motive, not altruism. Each said he knew when to stop because he didn’t want to risk getting killed or maimed. Neither was willing to push the other to the point of doing real physical harm. Since what they fought about had no serious long-term affects, they could call a truce and flip a coin to settle the matter. In their parent’s presence however, they depended on their parents to tell them when to stop fighting.

It would be nice if the boys would like each other and be friends. Certainly their parents think they shouldn’t be hitting each other. However, lets look at what these boys can teach us.

They know they will be encountering each other on an on going basis for some time to come. It’s in their best interest to get along. They know how to respond to kindness with kindness and how to retaliate to offenses without upping the ante. They know when to be forgiving and contrite. And, they know how and when to stop fighting when they get into physical conflicts. Their Tit for Tat strategy is nice, retaliatory, forgiving, and clear. It works well for them, and they don’t have to agree, be friends, or like each other. Reciprocity’s potential for success isn’t dependent on an altruistic motive. Self-preservation will do just as well.

—M. LaCourt